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How to assess heifer body condition

Dairy Calf & Heifer Association Published on 27 April 2011
Visual appraisal of heifer body condition is important to Matthew London.

The 1,200-head commercial heifer grower strives to achieve optimum body condition at all stages of growth so that heifers leaving the Cleveland, Georgia, farm freshen at 22 to 24 months old.

London’s goal parallels that established by the Dairy Calf & Heifer Association in its Gold Standards II (www.calfandheifer.org/?page=GoldStandardsII).

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The Gold Standards II, a set of benchmarks for Holstein heifers six months old to calving, establishes production and performance goals so that heifers freshen at 22 to 24 months old. Heifers at this milestone age also should achieve a target body condition score of 3.5 (on a five-point scale).

For growers like London, routine body condition appraisal is a tool to help him assess and identify issues that might be keeping heifers from reaching key performance goals. However, it also takes commitment and practice to make it most effective.

Over time you’ll learn what age groups benefit most from your routine evaluations of body condition scoring, as well as best applications for it on your farm.

A good system for older heifers
Routine evaluation of body condition is designed to catch heifers not using the energy in their feed efficiently.

“Traditionally we like to use a five-point scale,” says Jud Heinrichs, professor of dairy and animal science at Penn State University.

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The five-point system assigns a score between 1.0 and 5.0 based on an assessment of the visual fat reserves located at various places on the body. The problem, though, is that the system doesn’t work that well for heifers, particularly those less than 12 months old. This is because heifers deposit fat differently than mature cows.

“It’s a little tough with heifers because they don’t put on fat like a cow,” Heinrichs explains. “They actually put on body condition a little more like a goat than a cow. Goats put on fat in the brisket and above the shoulders and that’s what young heifers do also.”

These differences in fat deposition, not to mention the subjective nature of the five-point scoring system, make it a challenge to body condition score heifers.

To get the best results, Heinrichs recommends reserving the five-point system for animals 12 months old and older.

“When I teach body condition scoring, we take the 12-month-old to 18-month-old heifers available in the barn,” Heinrichs says. “I try not to use the younger ones.”

The body condition of older heifers will still fluctuate, he says, but it is generally more consistent than that of younger animals.

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More tools for managing body size
Since it is more difficult to score young heifers, stick to criteria such as average daily gain, hip height and wither height when you want to assess the body condition of heifers less than 12 months old. Comparing these measurements to a standardized growth chart can give you a good estimate of the body condition of younger animals.

For instance, if a heifer’s weight and height fall within the same range of a standardized growth chart, say, for example, between the 75th and the 95th percentile, “her body condition is going to be about perfect,” Heinrichs says.

Several publications and spreadsheets are available online to help you monitor and chart parameters such as heifer bodyweight, body length, height and body condition score. Find links to the following online references on the DCHA website under the Gold Standards tab.

• Penn State dairy cattle website

• University of Wisconsin heifer growth chart

• Body Condition Scoring for Dairy Replacement Heifers (an Elanco Animal Health brochure)

DCHA’s Gold Standards II recommends heifers achieve a weight of 825 to 900 pounds, a hip height greater than 50 inches and wither height greater than 48 inches by 13-15 months old. The Gold Standards also recommend a target growth rate of 1.7 to 2 pounds average daily gain for Holstein heifers six months old to freshening.

Target weight immediately precalving for Holsteins should be 1,350 pounds or 85 percent of the weight of full-term, pregnant, mature cows in the herd. And, again, aim for a body condition score at freshening of 3.5 on a five-point scale.

Score heifers as a group
Assessing heifer body condition does not always have to be done on an individual basis. Take it from Roger Imdieke, DCHA member and custom heifer grower in central Minnesota.

“When I body condition score cattle, I generally do it by pen,” he says. “After you do it a lot, you get a sense for where you want them at.”

“The other thing that’s helpful to me is to have someone else look at them occasionally,” Imdieke says. “Condition can change so gradually that you sort of get used to (the way the heifers look).”

Whether you look at heifers individually or as a group, it’s important to recognize the value of regular evaluation and how it can help you catch problems that keep heifers from attaining target growth rates and optimal body condition at calving. PD

The Dairy Calf & Heifer Association is the only national association dedicated to serving the dairy calf and heifer industry. DCHA strives to provide information, education and access to leading research and technology to help its members be more profitable.

DCHA members have the opportunity to network with producers, industry leaders and top academia to learn more about current issues affecting the dairy calf and heifer business. For more information about DCHA and the Gold Standards, visit www.calfandheifer.org or call 877-HEIFERS .

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